Design Thinking: a toolkit for everyone

Design Thinking is an open-source framework for building empathy for your customers and solving their problems in an iterative way.

July 24, 2020
6 mins
to read

Design Thinking is one of the most effective frameworks for driving innovation within organisations, though is still largely misunderstood. At its core, Design Thinking is simply a process for identifying problems and solving them iteratively through considered experimentation. It is definitely not reserved for designers - anyone can and should use it to drive positive impact.

The fundamental goal of Design Thinking is to help organisations think about customers as real people and create products and services that directly solve their problems.  The methodology facilitates this way of thinking by providing a simple framework for surfacing customer problems and solving them through iterative prototyping and testing. It is extremely useful when exploring problems that are ill-defined or unknown.

The five phases of Design Thinking

The image above illustrates the iterative nature of Design Thinking, with a project moving back and forth between phases of the methodology based on the outcome of a particular phase. The issue with this illustration, however, is that it doesn’t really explain the goal of each phase. We follow the Double Diamond approach to design thinking, which better illustrates the different mindsets a person or organisation should carry into each phase of a project. There is more to the picture to the left and right of the double-diamond, though we’ll leave that for another post.

Design Thinking in a basic Double Diamond

Phase 1: Empathise

Empathy is the foundation of human-centred design and simply means being able to understand and share the feelings of another person. In a business context, this means understanding your customers’ context, drivers for making decisions, and the problems they face on a daily basis.

The better the research that you conduct at this stage, the greater the likelihood of creating a successful product or service. Your research should not only be focused on any problems your customers are facing, but also on ways they are currently or have previously tried to solve their problem.  Three methods of research you can use to build empathy are:

  1. Observe:
    Go to where your customers are and watch how they behave to Identify points of friction.

  2. Engage:
    Interact with and interview your customers on a variety of topics. This can be carried out in public settings (e.g. street, malls, museum) as spontaneous encounters with your targeted audiences, or more formally through scheduled interviews.

  3. Immerse:
    Spend a day in your customers’ shoes. Try to see what they see and experience what they experience on a daily basis to identify opportunities for improvement.

Phase 2: Define

The goal of the define phase is to analyse your research, categories it into customer needs and insights, and define an actionable problem statement. This means communicating the problem from the users perspective rather than from the business’.

Something to keep in mind here is that your product or service needs to solve your customers’ problem, so you framing the problem statement from the point of view of your customer helps to communicate context to the broader team. Here is an example of good framing:

  • Business-centric: We need to increase our market share for food products amongst women aged 18-25 by 5%.

  • Customer-centric: Women aged 18-25 need to eat nutritious food in order to thrive and be healthy, but find it difficult to do so with such busy work schedules.

By defining the problem from the customers point-of-view, we can easily communicate their context (working women aged 18-25), their roadblocks (a busy schedule), and the positive outcome (eating healthy food).

This is not always easy to do, so Stanford’s d.School has come up with a POV MadLib for defining a design problem and refining it to a single Point of View. This can be incredibly helpful for design teams that are having trouble distilling user needs versus problems.

Phase 3: Ideate

This phase of the methodology is all about generating innovative ideas that address the problem statement. It is an opportunity to think divergently about the problem itself, as well as possible solutions.

Ideation sessions should include all the members of your design team as well as other members of your company who can offer different perspectives on the same problem. There are no good or bad ideas here - ideas should be as divergent as your team can manage.

It isn’t always that case that the final solution to the problem will be conceived during this phase. The point here is to come up with as many ideas as possible, sort through them to find the best (which will likely be some combination of user needs, practicality, cost-effectiveness, and other factors specific to the project) and then figure out which ones should move on to the next step: prototyping.

Phase 4: Prototype

Prototyping gets ideas out of your head and into the world. A prototype can be anything that takes a physical form—a wall of post-its, hand-drawn wire-frames, a role-playing activity. In early stages, keep prototypes inexpensive and low resolution to learn quickly and explore possibilities.

The purpose of a prototype if have your users experience and interact with them so you and your team can learn first-hand through feedback and observation before investing significant resources in producing a final product.

Prototyping should be done in stages, starting with low-fidelity prototypes used to gather feedback from users. As solutions are narrowed down, higher-functioning and better-designed prototypes can be created for further testing in a more realistic production environment.

Phase 5: Test

The testing phase is your opportunity to have your users interact with your prototypes. Put what your team has built in the hands of your customers and observe how they interact with what you’ve created.

Do they get stuck quickly? Do they feel themselves wanting or needing more to derive real value from the experience? Are they confused about particular wording? Do different people interact with it differently?

Take all of these learnings and synthesise them into actionable insights to help you and your team refine your prototypes, then go back to Phase 4 and make the necessary changes. Remain between Phase 4 and 5 until your product serves your Customers well enough for you to confidently build your Minimum Viable Product (MVP).


Design Thinking is an open-source framework for building empathy for your customers and solving their problems in an iterative way. The framework lends itself perfectly to all business units and is definitely not reserved for designers.

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